The Role of a Wife in a man’s Life: – Lessons from Katharina von Bora

You may ask again! Who was Katharina von Bora? Well, she was the wife of Martin Luther. Katie as was called by her husband was an extraordinary woman and we could learn a lot from her life. I hope you will find something worth holding to through the glimpse into Martin Luther’s Rib.

Katherine was born in January 1499 in a little village near Leipzig. her parents enjoyed a degree of financial security and unlike girls her age, she received an education like many in those day through Benedictine school begining at age six. At age ten, when her mother dies and her father remarried, they sent Katherine to a Cistercian convent to prepare for solemn vows, eventually taking them when she was sixteen.

A Wagon Load of Vestal VirginsIn the early 1520s, Luther’s writings began to infiltrate monastic houses. There was a group of twelve sisters at Nimschen, whose conscious was disturbed by developments and sought Luther’s counsel. Katie was among the nuns that began to hear of Luther’s beliefs, possibly even hearing him preach in 1519 when Luther was at Grimma a town close to the cloister.

Four years later Katie and 11 other nuns worked together seeking to leave the convent. These were very serious plans as leaving holy orders or aiding those trying to escape was punishable by death. Though he did not know these young women, Martin Luther put his life on the line when he worked with Leonhard Kopp to assist in their escape. Kopp was a fish merchant and often made deliveries to the convent. In the sixteenth century the fish would have been salted and transported in large barrels.

Thus it was that on Holy Saturday 1523, after the evening vigil Katie and the other 11 nuns slipped out and into the awaiting barrels to be transported under the darkness of night. In fact, the twelve nuns simply rode inside a covered wagon hidden from the watchful eyes of the cloister’s guardian monks. The nuns were transported to Torgau where 3 left to return to family and the remaining 9 continued on to Wittenberg where Luther had arranged for their lodging among friends. Katie herself would live with Luther’s friend and artist Lucas Cranach and his family. Regarding this escape, a student there wrote to a friend, “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town all more eager for marriage than for life. May God give them husbands lest worse befall.”

Luther felt responsible that worse should not befall. All were placed either in teaching posts, in homes, or in matrimony. Katherine spent two years working in a home while Luther sought a husband for her. Finding no match, and at her initial suggestion, Luther agreed to marry Katherine because his marriage “would please his father, rile the pope, make the angels laugh and the devils weep, and would seal his testimony.” She was twenty-six; he was forty-two.

Though initially a marriage of convenience, they grew to love and depend upon each other profoundly. In fact, Luther would say of her, “In domestic affairs, I defer to Katie. Otherwise I am led by the Holy Ghost.” When he thought her at the point of death, he pleaded, “Don’t die and leave me.” Thirteen years after their marriage, Martin would say of Katherine, “If I should lose my Katie I would not take another wife through I were offered a queen.”

Married Life: Luther grew to love his “Katie” dearly and fathered six children with her. His action is also a stunning testimonial to the Reformation’s position concerning marriage and celibacy for religious leaders.

On some matters, Luther was very much a sixteenth-century male. He believed that the man was the head of the family and should be in charge of government as well. But unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not support the high level of misogyny that characterized the intellectual worldview of the Renaissance. Luther gave Katherine von Bora control of the family finances and the running of the household.   She was more practical and grounded — not the simple housewife preferred by most men of the time.

The marriage of Martin Luther and Katherine von Bora initially appeared to create an odd couple. Luther was a former monk in his early forties with habits not too akin to domestic harmony. During one period of his bachelor days, he went for two years without changing the sheets on his bed. It is unclear whether that particular set of sheets was laundered or burned afterward.

Katherine came from a family of higher social rank than Luther’s, albeit an impecunious family. The Von Boras were members of the knightly class, a proud but declining segment of German society. Luther came from peasant stock. His father Hans was a miner who got involved in the business side of the mining and became well-to-do.

Initially Luther considered Katherine to be overly proud, but he quickly grew to love her. He clearly liked sleeping with his “Katie” and remarked on the joy of waking up to pigtails on the pillow next to him. The Luthers had an affectionate relationship. Luther liked to joke with his wife. In his letters he sometimes called her “my sweetheart Kate” or “my dearly beloved Kate” or “my true love.” Other references showed his respect for her intelligence when he referred to her as “Mrs. Doctor” and ”Doctora Lutherin.” Luther could also joke with Katherine by calling her “Lady of the New Pig Market,” a reference to her efforts to raise pigs to feed her family and boarders.

A Place at the Table for All: The Luthers invited and welcomed many guests into their home. Being a former monastic residence, their home the Black Cloister had many small rooms, which the Luthers rented to students or visiting clergy. These visitors and guests ate at the Luther table, with every meal seemingly overflowing with hungry seekers, acolytes, and fellow rebels. Some guests were not paying customers either, which put a strain on the family resources. In effect, Katherine von Bora was running a boarding-house to provide additional income for the family.

Luther showed his regard for his wife Katherine in other significant ways. On one occasion, he put her on a search committee to hire a new pastor. In those days it was unheard of to allow a woman to be part of such a decision. To the grumblers Luther commented that his wife would show better judgment than he would. He also let Katherine handle much of his business with publishers. Frequently, Luther also took her advice on intellectual and political matters.

Another practical display of Luther’s confidence in and care for his wife was his will, written in his own hand. It made Katherine von Bora his sole heir. In Saxony, it was common practice to make the children the heirs of a deceased male. The heirs were then expected to take care of their surviving mother. Many did not. Luther wanted his wife to be economically secure and independent in her widowhood. It was an unheard of act on Luther’s part.

Of the Luthers’ six children, four survived to adulthood — Hans, Martin the younger, Paul, and Margarete. Elizabeth died in 1528 before she reached eight months, a tragedy that greatly saddened the Luthers. Magdalene, the Luther’s next child, was born in 1529. Since she was another daughter, Magdalene took the place of the deceased Elizabeth for Martin and Katherine. Sadly, she died when she was only thirteen years old.

Magdalene’s death revealed the spiritual foundation of the Luthers’ life together. As the child’s illness worsened, husband and wife comforted the stricken Magdalene and each other through expressions of their faith in God’s will. As the end approached, one of Luther’s friends described how “he fell on his knees before the bed and, weeping bitterly, prayed that God might will to save her. Thus she gave up the ghost in the arms of her father. Her mother [Katherine] was in the same room, but further from the bed on account of her grief.”

Losing young children was an experience and a burden shared by many families during the sixteenth century. Still, it grieved the bereaved parents every bit as much as it would sadden a mother and father to lose a child in our day and age.

Despite these tragic losses, the Luther household was a happy one for Martin and Katherine and their children. The Luthers were strict but loving parents who allowed their children plenty of time to play.

Let’s Squabble about Money.  Friends and partners they were, but both were also possessed of strong personalities, leading to occasional episodes of quarrelling, as is normal for married couples. Their biggest source of disagreement was money. Luther liked to spend it and Katie liked to save it. This observation is not to imply that Luther was a spendthrift. His monetary failing was his generosity. He allowed many who were in need to lodge at the Black Cloister as boarders without paying rent, and he willingly gave money to friends in need.

Luther’s business sense as an author was also poorly developed. Publishers made handsome profits from his books while the popular author saw little to no income from his writing.

 A Physician of the Soul. What was it about Katherine’s character and ministry that so endeared her to Luther? She “ministered to her husband’s diseases, depressions, and eccentricities.” Her son, later a physician, praised her as half a doctor. He could not have survived his depression, which he interpreted as satanic temptations to doubt God’s forgiveness, without her sustaining and healing ministry. At night he would turn over and plead with Katherine, “Forbid me to have such temptations.” Based upon Luther’s own methods of soul care for such depression, we can surmise that Katherine responded by ministering sustaining empathy and healing encouragement through spiritual conversations and scriptural explorations.

Luther’s own testimony further describes Katherine’s empathic care. Speaking from the experience of their marriage and parenting he writes:

“Marriage offers the greatest sphere for good works, because it rest on love—love between the husband and the wife, love of the parents for the children, whom they nourish, clothe, rear, and nurse. If a child is sick, the parents are sick with worry. If the husband is sick, the wife is as concerned as if it were herself. If it be said that marriage entails concern, worry, and trouble, that is all true, but these the Christian is not to shun.”

Undoubtedly, Martin frequently experienced Katherine’s as if compassion numerous times in his battles with depression.

Katherine was unafraid to lovingly rebuke Martin. When his language was too foul, she would say, “Oh come now, that’s too raw.” Luther’s Table Talks also disclose that Katherine at times prodded her husband to respond forcefully to unfair attacks and doctrinal error.

A Hospital for the Hurting. As with Idelette Calvin, Katherine’s ministry was not exclusively to her family. The Augustinian Cloister where Luther had lived as a monk was first loaned and then given to the couple by the Elector. It had on the first floor forty rooms with cells above. Eventually not a single room was unoccupied. A friend described the scene. “The home of Luther is occupied by a motley crowd of boys, students, girls, widows, old women, and youngsters.” Katherine “came to be a mistress of a household, a hostel, and a hospital.”

Luther recognized and appreciated her versatility and creativity. “To my dear wife Katherine von Bora, preacher, brewer, gardener, and whatsoever else she may be.” On other occasions he referred to her as “my kind and dear lord and master, Katy, Lutheress, doctoress, and priestess of Wittenberg.” Yet again, ten years after they married, he had this description. “My lord Kate drives a team, farms, pastures, and sells cows . . . and between times reads the Bible.”

‘Till Death Do Us Part. Just as Luther loved his “Dear Kate,” she loved him just as deeply. After Luther’s death on 18 February 1546, Katherine wrote to her sister-in-law Christina von Bora two months later.

“I know that you take pity on me and my poor children,” Katherine wrote. “For who could not be deeply grieved and saddened over the loss of such a dear and precious man as my husband has been. He gave so much of himself in service not only to one town or to one country, but to the whole world. Yes, my sorrow is so deep that no words can express my heartbreak, and it is humanly impossible to understand what state of mind and spirit I am in . . . I can neither eat nor drink, not even sleep . . . God knows that when I think of having lost him, I can neither talk nor write in all my suffering.”

Katherine von Bora died on 20 December 1552 at the age of fifty-three. War in the region of Wittenberg had forced to her to flee with her family. She fell into a watery ditch while trying to control the horses pulling her family’s wagon. The cold, the damp, and possible internal injuries caused her to sicken. Deathly ill, she was taken to Torgau by her children, where she died and was buried.

Sticking to Christ. But for Katherine, reading the Bible was insufficient. She longed to apply it. “I’ve read enough. I’ve heard enough. I know enough. Would to God I lived it.”

Such was her testimony to her dying day.  Bedridden for three months after an accident landed her on her back in a ditch filled with icy water, Katherine died on December 20, 1550, at age fifty-one. The final words from her lips depict how she lived her entire life. “I will stick to Christ as a burr to a top coat.” The last words of Idelette Calvin and Katherine von Bora Luther each communicates that they were not simply wives of Reformers, but more so daughters of the King of King.

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Which aspect of Katherine’s life most powerfully impacts you?

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